Sen. Lamar Alexander took a long Canadian fishing trip in the middle of his reelection campaign. That's pretty much all you need to know about how much he fears Bob Tuke, the Democrat attempting to unseat him.
It's not that Tuke is a bad candidate. He's not one of those crackpots who litter statewide ballots. (Remember Prince Mongo from the Planet Zambodia?)
No, Tuke, former chair of the state Democratic Party, is a respected adoption lawyer who fought in Vietnam with the Marines. Like Virginia's Jim Webb, he's exactly the kind of candidate Democrats need in Southern races—a macho guy with heart and smarts of equal magnitude.
Nor is Alexander overwhelmingly popular. Democratic polling last year purportedly showed the first-term senator as beatable—though mainly because he's a Republican. With the economy in the shitter and the war dragging on, the political environment favors Democrats, even in Tennessee.
So what's the matter with Tuke? No one gives him a chance against Alexander, and no one ever has.
He's caught up in the essential conundrum of modern politics: It takes so much money to compete (at least $5 million for a typical statewide race in Tennessee) that campaigns are becoming the exclusive domain of the very wealthy—or people from Zambodia.
You can't raise money because no one thinks you can win. And no one thinks you can win because you don't have any money. Unless you're rich or already occupy an office to leverage special-interest contributions, consider yourself a loser.
Phil Bredesen, Bill Frist and Bob Corker owe their electoral successes to their own considerable wealth. It's a safe bet that if they weren't rich, they'd have the same name recognition as a guy who sells popcorn at the Sommet Center.
The problem has even extended to city politics. In last year's mayor's race, the relatively unknown Karl Dean defeated arguably better qualified candidates almost entirely by burning through his wife's inherited wealth. He started running TV ads weeks before anyone else could afford them.
Tuke, meanwhile, is having trouble just raising $1 million. Alexander's raked in more than $7 million at last report. He could have raised much more but stopped trying. What was the point, especially when he'd rather be fishing?
"Money has a ton to do with it," says Tuke, who's heard all the excuses from potential contributors. "When people are encouraging me, they say, 'Wow, you'd be a great senator.' ... But when they're discouraging me, inevitably what they say is, 'You can't raise that money. Lamar's got all that money. It takes too much money. It's money, money, money.' It's a shame. It really is."
Tuke is neither wealthy nor an office-holder, so pundits have dissed his candidacy at every opportunity. One told a forum of reporters and political insiders that Alexander would have to commit some kind of atrocity to lose.
Tuke tried to wrangle a little publicity with a gimmick—he would walk across the state wearing his Marine combat boots! But then he learned there aren't any voters standing around on the hot pavement in the middle of nowhere. He walked until his feet blistered and saw hardly anyone except the unlucky campaign aide who accompanied him. Needless to say, he was forced to adjust his strategy.
"What did me in was the walk from Gallatin to Hendersonville. It was 12-and-a-half miles and it was a really hot day in the mid-90s, and cars were zooming by and there wasn't a soul to talk to."
"OK," Tuke said to his aide, "this is the last time I'm doing this. We're going to do a new plan. This is ridiculous."
Even his victory over a ballot of goofballs in the August primary came with a certain amount of mockery. He lost more than a few counties to a guy named Gary Davis. This caused much head-scratching on election night; nobody had ever heard of Davis. The final assessment: Voters mistakenly believed they were backing popular congressman Lincoln Davis.
Tuke has responded by bombarding reporters with press releases carrying tantalizing headlines such as "Alexander says NO to more protection for drug-endangered children," and "Alexander chooses partisanship over pregnant women." But the media haven't paid the slightest attention.
He's also paid for a couple of polls. In one, he was way behind. But then respondents were told that Alexander's in Big Oil's back pocket, that he voted for "unfair trade deals" that cost 43,000 jobs in Tennessee, that he voted against Medicare and updating G.I. Bill benefits for veterans.
Even after all this, Tuke still trailed by 10 points.
In the second poll, released last week, he claims to have cut Alexander's lead to 12 points without ever telling respondents bad things about the senator. A 12-point deficit a month before the election? That's what passes for good news with Tuke's campaign these days.
And even that doesn't accurately portray how badly he'll be pummeled. In two independent polls released at the same time, he was twice as far behind. More than half of voters never heard of him.
Tuke claims he only entered the race because no one else would. He saw it as his civic obligation.
"Democracy is best served if viable candidates from both parties run for high office," he says. "That sounds trite, but obviously it's not trite since we haven't always had that happen in Tennessee or in other places. I must say that I saw it as a bit of a calling and a duty."
From anyone else, that would sound self-serving. But from Tuke, it could well be sincere. Playing the token opposition isn't exactly a joy ride.
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